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Interview with Leon Chaitow - Leon Chaitow

Why did you choose to become an osteopath?

A number of family members – uncles and cousins were osteopaths or chiropractors, and I became interested after having several excellent experiences when treated by them as a teenager, following falls and sporting injuries. After completing high school education in my home country, South Africa, I travelled to London to train as an osteopath at what is now the British College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Hampstead, London.

This College was established in the 1930s with major assistance from my father’s cousin, Stanley Lief D.O. D.C., the founder of Champneys, the world famous health resort in Hertfordshire. He donated the building that originally housed the college, and which remains part of the now enlarged campus. I find it strange that until very recently I was a senior lecturer at the Westminster University (School of Integrated Health) which validates the degree courses of that same college.

How did you start writing?

I began to write in the late 1960s on various topics, initially at the suggestion of a patient whose father owned a publishing house that later merged with HarperCollins. My first practitioner focused book was Acupuncture Treatment of Pain (1976) and this is still in print after 2 revisions.

Another of my early practitioner books, Soft Tissue Manipulation (also still in print in the USA), was published in the early 80s. This attracted attention and I was invited to teach at numerous chiropractic and massage schools in the USA. This connection remains and I periodically return to teach there, although that side of my work was reduced due to university commitments as well as because of new and exciting interest which physiotherapists in Europe, the UK and Australia have shown in my work.

How has the osteopathic profession changed over the years?

When I graduated osteopathy was unregulated; anyone with a weekend of training (or less) could call themselves an osteopath.

Now, thanks to the diligence of the profession a powerful professional body has been established, ensuring high standards of both training and ethics. This has resulted in legislation which prohibits (an offence which can lead to imprisonment!) the use of the title osteopath by anyone not duly qualified and registered by the General Osteopathic Council. Because of these changes a major shift has taken place so that both the medical profession and major health insurance companies are now prepared to work with osteopaths. Since 1993 I have been employed on a part time basis by a National Health Service medical practice in London, and this would have been impossible until the legislation regulating the profession.

Another change is on the academic front, where just a few years ago it would have been inconceivable to contemplate the courses (some of which I designed and helped launch) that are now run at the University of Westminster – at both undergraduate and masters level, in subjects such as chiropractic, therapeutic bodywork, sports therapy, herbal medicine, Chinese medicine, homeopathy and nutrition.

In just a few years the School of Integrated Health for whom I worked from 1993 until 2003 has grown from nothing to the point there are over 700 full time students, and a polyclinic, opened a few years ago by the Prince of Wales.

So a profession which was dismissed as quackery at the time I graduated in 1960 has moved from that point to being ‘fringe’, then ‘ ‘alternative’, ‘complementary’ and finally integrated!

Has anyone in particular inspired you in your work?

I would suppose Stanley Lief, mentioned earlier, and his cousin (my father’s brother) Boris Chaitow, who taught me many soft tissue manipulation skills (he was both a chiropractor and an osteopath). Boris was a difficult but brilliant man, and a gifted healer and manual clinician. I have tried to follow his example in many of my clinical methods.

How many books have you written?

I have now had over 65 books published, with around 12 of these aimed at the professional market, the rest were written for the general public. Around half are still in print in English but I have lost track of how many are in translation.

One of the early books which I am particularly proud is Acupuncture Treatment of Pain (Healing Arts Press), published in 1975 (revised twice since then) and still in print in the USA (and in foreign translations) which has been used by thousands of Western doctors as their way into this important means of controlling pain. Other satisfying books include Candida Albicans – now having sold over a million copies and in its 5th revised incarnation. The series of textbooks and CD-ROMs I have produced for Churchill Livingstone (Elsevier) also gives me a sense of achievement.

How do you split your time between teaching, writing and practice and which of these areas do you prefer?

I love them all. I spend nearly half the year in Greece (my wife is a native of Corfu), writing and editing, and sometimes spending more time on emails than in the pool! Until mid-2003 I ran five undergraduate modules on different aspects of therapeutic bodywork, palpation and cranial manipulation, as well as one module on a masters programme at the University of Westminster. Now, when I am in the UK, now that my university teaching obligations have ended I practice privately on one day a week, and spend half a day in the National Health practice in central London, mentioned earlier. I also teach various physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathic classes, in hospitals, universities and clinics around the UK and in Europe (Holland, Spain, Denmark and Iceland).

What made you decide to collaborate with Judith DeLany in writing Clinical Application of Neuromuscular Techniques.

I learned (from Boris Chaitow – who developed it with Stanley Lief) the ‘European’ version of Neuromuscular Technique (NMT) and wanted to combine this with the ‘American’ version, which is similar but different… as well as incorporating these methods into a context which allowed for a perspective of the patient’s problems in relation to their current and past exposure to biomechancial, psychosocial and biochemical adaptive demands.

I needed someone like Judith who is a gifted and respected teacher of the ‘American’ version of NMT as a collaborator. What has emerged in the first volumes (Volume 1-Upper Body, Volume 2 – Lower body) has met both our aspirations as these incorporate a wide range of assessment and therapeutic approaches to help meet the total needs of the individual with musculoskeletal problems. Judith and I first started planning the book in 1996 when we were developing the ideas that became the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, which I edit and on which she and three other American practitioners are associate editors.

Our most recent collaboration has been in writing a study guide (due out in 2005) to support these two major texts.

Do you find much difference in the way osteopathy is practiced around the world?

American osteopathy remains the most admirable, when osteopaths there actually utilise what they are taught… sadly many don’t. In the USA most practice regular medicine (they are fully licensed physicians) and delegate ‘bodywork’ to assistants. This is in contrast to osteopathy in Europe and Australia/New Zealand where it remains largely focused on musculoskeletal problems. Regrettably many practitioners have become too biomechanical in their focus, losing sight of other influences on health and dysfunction (such as emotions, nutrition etc). As far as comparisons go I have noted that Australian practitioners in particular are in general amongst the best trained and most skilled, and this is as true of physiotherapists as it is of osteopaths. I foresee a time in this century where the actual differences between osteopathy, chiropractic and physiotherapy (manual medicine) will vanish, with similarities in assessment and treatment being so obvious, with clinical methodology being based on evidence rather than theory, that a merging of training will take place.

And finally, what do you do in your spare time away from work?

Dumbo the miniature dachshundI swim, read, walk our long-haired miniature dachshund and go to art galleries and the theatre with my wonderful wife and our daughter Sasha ( a budding artist and author)…. my main hobby however is my work in all its facets.